The gentleman rendered in the painting here is not Old Hop but his nephew, Cunneshote. It gives us a good idea of what an 18th century Cherokee headman looked like.
Old Hop was the uku, the keeper of the sacred fire in Chota. As such he occupied a position of beloved man. As the primary elder in his community it was his task to pass on tradition and give counsel. Born sometime in the late 1600’s, Old Hop occupied this role from 1753 until about 1760, when he died. During his tenure the British held him in awkward esteem as “king” of the Cherokees — there was no such title among the latter.
Like all native American societies the Cherokee followed traditional folkways and polity. But tradition placed a premium on personal liberty. A man was expected to do and behave in a number of traditional ways; but he could not be coerced into acting against his own judgment.
For example, in order to exact blood vengeance for the death of a loved one, a Cherokee town might form a war party — always temporary and limited in scope. The young men of the town were expected to join. But even up to the moment of attack an individual could decide that he wanted no part in the trouble, and could walk away without any formal repercussion. Moreover, a man could disagree with a town council’s decision and go his own way. Such individual secession was infrequent, but the right was honored.
Old Hop could only lead by example and influence. He was a deft negotiator between French and British colonial interests. Anthropologist Fred Gearing observed,
When Cherokees had differences among themselves, Old Hop had a great capacity to bring them together. Typically, he avoided making decisions himself… He was extremely cool-headed and patient with the more precipitate of the Cherokees around him. In short, Old Hop was the near-perfect embodiment of the Cherokee ideas about proper leadership behavior, that is, unusually circumspect.
There are a number of lessons here. Cherokee culture prized individual liberty. War parties had specific just-cause purposes and were self-limited. We detect, too, that there was an innate understanding that tradition protected liberty in a way that later innovations could not. After Old Hop died the Cherokees found themselves increasingly drawn into trading rivalries and imperial intrigue, and eventually found themselves dispossessed by the new continental empire called the United States.
Given European technological prowess the outcome was fairly inevitable. But if Old Hop embodies nothing else, it is the principle that freedom is more precious than innovation and expediency.